In a ruling that will have a significant impact on older adults in same-sex relationships among America’s growing population of seniors, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected central provisions in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), while allowing others to stand.
The court ruled that the federal government violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution and states rights when it defined marriage for the purposes of federal benefits as between a man and a woman. However, the court did not require states to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, creating two tiers of marriage recognition. This could create unintended complications, especially for older Americans by allowing couples to be considered married by the federal government but unmarried by some states.
B’nai B’rith International has long been an advocate for seniors and their ability to live their lives in peace and security. It is important to inform senior, same-sex couples how their benefits and legal rights will change with this ruling.
What this means on the federal level and in states recognizing same-sex marriage:
There are more than 1,100 federal rights afforded to married couples and they are often associated with financial and health care matters. In most cases under DOMA, federal programs could not recognize same sex-marriages for purposes of federal benefits. This now changes.
For instance, any employer-sponsored insurance benefit to an employee’s spouse is not considered income to either party for federal tax purposes, but is considered taxable income for same-sex couples, even if they are legally married, no matter where they live. DOMA did not allow the federal government to recognize those marriages, thus denying the couples a significant tax break. This is of particular concern as people age because group insurance coverage is much less expensive for older workers than buying insurance individually through the open market.
A surviving spouse in a same-sex marriage can also inherit large sums without incurring federal inheritance taxes. Previously legally married gay couples were treated as unrelated heirs for federal estate tax purposes.
What the ruling means in states that do not allow same-sex marriage:
As previously mentioned the court did not address the issue of states that don’t allow same-sex marriage and states that do not recognize same-sex marriages from other states. What the court did do is establish the standard of scrutiny for laws restricting recognition of married couples, which may influence state decisions on the matter at a later time. For now, the indecision on the state level by the court will result in many issues for older, married, same-sex couples related to whether or not another state recognizes that marriage.
The most basic example is complicated tax filings for couples who live outside of their marriage jurisdiction in a state that doesn't have same-sex marriage.
Additionally, like any other retirees, older same-sex couples may choose to move away from the state in which they lived (and were married) at retirement. As we know, places like Florida and Arizona (neither of which recognizes the legal, same sex-marriages of other states) are attractive destinations for retirees.
For older adults, living in a state that does not recognize marriage sanctioned in another state also raises various issues, including inheritance rights and medical decision-making. For same-sex couples married in any state (or foreign country) there are automatic inheritance rights—one spouse is the presumed heir of the other (to varying percentages by state). For same-sex couples retiring to states without marriage recognition, establishing these inheritance rights requires, at the least, additional legal planning and at the most, civil dispute resolution with competing heirs.
With the Supreme Court leaving the door open on state recognition of same-sex marriages, this issue is still evolving. After any Supreme Court decision, there is some confusion as to how it actually affects Americans. B’nai B’rith will continue to monitor how the court’s ruling plays out and what laws or other judicial decisions are handed down to address the ruling with more clarity.